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Medvedev, Prokhorov, Kudrin, And The Thaw

President Dmitry Medvedev meets with Mikhail Prokhorov (right) at the Gorki presidential residence on June 27.
President Dmitry Medvedev meets with Mikhail Prokhorov (right) at the Gorki presidential residence on June 27.
The editorial in Monday's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" left little room for ambiguity.

In essence we are talking about the end of an entire period in Russian political history," the daily opined. "Given the diversity of Russian society, internal democratization and establishing the institutions of political representation are essential. This often must be done manually. Right Cause seems to be an important element of this.

Over the past several days there have been ample signs that changes in how Russia is governed are indeed in the works. Whether these will be meaningful and lasting, or simply cosmetic, is still an open question. What is not in question, as "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted, is that any changes will be done "manually" -- meaning that the process will be stage managed by upper echelons of the ruling elite, which has no intention of losing control of the thaw it has initiated.

Right Cause, the Kremlin's attempt to create a housebroken center-right party, held its congress in Moscow on Saturday and elected Mikhail Prokhorov as its leader. He called for the direct election of governors, mayors, judges, and police chiefs. He called for a return of single-mandate districts in elections to the State Duma. He called for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev to be freed.

And he directly challenged the ruling United Russia party's chokehold on power:

Our country is called the Russian Federation, but by structure it is an empire. Only presidential power works here, and this kind of governance cannot provide stability let alone development. We need to take back parliament. In the near future become the second largest party, and then later, the first.

The congress was broadcast on state television. Two days later, President Dmitry Medvedev invited Prokhorov for a chat at his residence in the Moscow suburb of Gorki.

Here is what Medvedev had to say to Prokhorov, according to the Kremlin's official website:

Your ideas correspond on some points with my own views. At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, I spoke about the need to decentralize power and have already given the instruction to set up working groups in which the regional governors and local government heads will take part.

Some of your ideas are more radical in nature and require more reflection, but one thing is clear, and that is that centralized power in any country, even in as complex a federal state as Russia, cannot continue forever. There was a time when we had to 'tighten the screws' as it were, in order to get our institutions working and establish a state administration system capable of carrying out the instructions given, because the system had deteriorated during the 1990s, unfortunately. But of course, it's one thing to 'tighten the screws', and another thing to turn them too far.

We need to look now at how to make our system ¬ the power system, and the electoral system ¬ less bureaucratic, freer, and less centralized at the national level and in the regions, and this includes looking at new ideas too, ideas that haven't been discussed yet. All of the political parties should take part in this work, and I hope that Right Cause will get involved too.

As for the ideas you proposed, I will think about them.

If this all seems a bit orchestrated, well that's because it is. It is the opening sequence in a stage-managed -- manually-controlled -- move by the Russian elite toward managed pluralism.

And the motivation? In an interview with "The New York Times" published today, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin spelled it all out pretty clearly.

Speaking to the Times' (Pulitzer Prize winning) Moscow bureau chief Ellen Barry, Kudrin explained that oil production will not increase in Russia over the next 10 years as old wells will run dry and newly developed ones are yet to go online:

The great part of the economy, about 17 percent, will not grow. I mean 17 percent of G.D.P. In order for Russian economy to grow at 6 or more percent, it is necessary for all the rest of the economy to grow even faster. And in order for it to grow faster very understandable rules are needed. Understandable institutions. A good judicial system, so that everyone will be sure in his investments, in fair arbitration and courts, in very efficient work of the government and its administration of all federal bodies and its authority. We won’t be able to grow the economy by simply increasing oil production anymore. More complicated work is ahead of us. In essence, it will be diversification of economy. This has already become inevitable, because the oil industries won’t grow and other industries will. Communication, transport, information communications, main branches of industry will grow. But not oil. Of course, we will get away from our dependence on oil. It will be very difficult — it is necessary to create good rules of the game, and both Putin and Medvedev understand this.

Kudrin is a fairly reliable barometer of Russia's political winds. Ideologically close to Medvedev's technocratic approach, but personally close to Putin (he is rumored to be the only official allowed to use the familiar "ty" with Putin in private), he is in a unique position to understand both men's thinking.

Asked if there was consensus between Medvedev and Putin on reform, Kudrin's response was telling.

"They understand it a little bit differently," Kudrin said. "As a whole, yes, they understand it. Probably they are ready -- I think they are ready for this work. I know this from our discussions. This is why, in principle, Russia will improve its investment climate and carry out reforms under either leader."

Kudrin, who has outlasted five prime ministers over his eleven year stint as finance minister, has long been locked in a struggle for influence with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who opposes diversifying the economy away from energy and opening up the political system.

Both have Putin's ear and both have sought to influence his thinking. Kudrin's comments and the events of the past few weeks suggest that he is winning -- at least for now.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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